Cinematique Fantastique: Belladonna of Sadness
A few years ago, I had a classic film blog called Cinematique Fantastique. I figured through my love of vintage everything, that this may be a great forum to bring it back as a recurring column.
Belladonna of Sadness is a film is full of duality - beautiful and horrific, sacred and profane, engaging and unsettling, whimsical and maddening. The X-rated Japanese anime classic re was originally released in 1973, but was never released in the States. It had quite a cult following and was extremely hard to find, with low-quality versions popping up on YouTube. Belladonna was the third and final in Mushi Studios' Animerama adult animation trilogy, following A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra. This is the one that pushed so far, was the only not written or directed by Osamu Tazuka, and was such a commercial failure that it cased Mushi to go bankrupt, so it never made a stateside release. Also, it was too "out there" even for arthouse theatres, and too "arty" for the grindhouse/adult theatres.
The film is currently available on TCM on demand and Fandor, and honestly, I had never heard of it and had no clue the type of ride I was in for. Once I was buckled in tight, I couldn't keep my eyes off it. The first thing that you'll notice as you start watching is the painterly style - beautiful watercolors that bleed in varying shades of intensity onscreen. Also, the imagery is based on Art Nouveau, particularly Klimt and tarot card visuals. You'll also hear the delightful psychedelic jazz-folk-rock fusion that follows throughout the film.
The story follows newlyweds Jean and Jeanne. They don't have much money, and when the Baron asks for money that they don't have, he asks if Jeanne is chaste. He then proceeds along with his henchmen to brutally gang rape her. Jean can't get past it, and Jeanne is praying for power, praying to get past the trauma she's endured. A spirit (which looks like a phallus) tells her that the more she strokes it, the more power she will acquire. Soon, she realizes that she's bargaining with the devil and feels torn that she's enjoying her...encounters. Still, her power is on the ascent, despite all the times she's beat back down by the Baron and his men. She is resilient and carries on stronger each and every time. Soon the townspeople are rumoring that she's a witch, since she must have some sort of wicked power to gain such power, but they soon come to her for advice and her healing powers.
The X rated masterpiece is important because of how far it pushed the boundaries, during a time where sexual freedom and women's liberation were on the ascent. The film is considered a feminist masterpiece, as it's seen that Jeanne, a woman who claims her sexuality after such a horrific tragedy can reclaim her power. That every time she's knocked down throughout the film, she gets up stronger and stronger until she's a force to be reckoned with. That she shows no shame in doing what she wants, when she wants, and with whom she wants, and dammit, if she wants to have sex just for the sake of pleasure, then so be it. Her sexual freedom is seen of as threatening, as well as her independence to make a living for herself. A woman having money and power is threatening, so she must be a witch. She's a powerful woman, so she must be sleeping with the devil, right? She must be corrupt. And witchcraft was something that the patriarchy used in order to persecute women who dared express their opinion and independence - sending a message that such behavior would not be tolerated.
As explicit and as shocking as the film is, it doesn't feel like its doing it just for shock's sake. The intention is to make an impact on you, a lasting impression. It's deliberate. There's nothing subtle about it at all. Also, watching some of the psychedelic visuals (especially Jeanne's orgasm, the transformation sequence, and the orgy scenes) are especially trippy, at times disturbing, but always gripping.
This film is pure art, and is everything that art should be. It's beautiful, with still images mixed in with moving images, the washes and bleeds of color that vary in intensity. It begs to be looked at no matter how uncomfortable it gets. Most of all, it accomplishes the mission of any true work of art: it leaves you with a lasting impression and begs you to bring the conversation to the table.